Shirley Knight learned last month that there isn’t any law prohibiting the destruction of saguaro cactuses on one’s own property.
Knight, a 64-year-old Apache Junction resident, said she stood in her kitchen and cried on Oct. 18, as she watched a bulldozer clear away dozens of saguaros from a five-acre vacant lot at Plaza Drive and Teepee Street. Also removed were paloverde trees and other native plants that had previously created a park-like setting across the street from her home.
“It was pretty hard to stand there and hear them hit the ground,” Knight said. “The whole lot was scalped clean.”
City Councilman Richard Dietz and wife Debbie also noticed the destroyed plants as they drove to dinner.
“We looked over and saw all these saguaros had been knocked over,” said Debbie Dietz, 51, who was born and raised in Arizona. “I was screaming, ‘Get a camera!’ I’m a native, so I get really upset about things like this.”
Debbie Dietz called the police and a local newspaper, putting a halt to the developer’s work for a day. Richard Dietz began researching city and state laws to see if there was a way to save the remaining flora. There wasn’t.
A day later, the developer cleared away the rest of the plants.
Stuart Farber, a spokesman for Michigan-based developer Paragon Homes LLC, said he followed the law and also hired a local nursery to remove plants that were viable for salvage. The rest of the flora couldn’t be saved, Farber said.
“In order to develop land, there are times where, unfortunately, plants need to go,” Farber said, adding that his company is always mindful of the environment and local laws.
At a council meeting this month, Richard Dietz asked for a city ordinance to protect native flora. The council voted unanimously in support of an ordinance similar to those enacted by cities such as Scottsdale, Tucson and Oro Valley, which restrict the destruction of plants such as saguaros.
City staff in February will present the new ordinance to the council for a vote.
The saguaro is included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of threatened and endangered plants. The cactuses can live up to 200 years, and it can take up to 75 years for a saguaro to grow a new arm. The saguaro blossom is the state flower of Arizona.
Nick Blake, a superintendent for Apache Junction Parks and Recreation and a licensed landscape architect, said existing laws allow property owners to dispose of native flora such as saguaros. However, he added that Apache Junction could follow the lead of cities such as Scottsdale and enact stronger measures, which supersede state law to make it more difficult to cut down native plants.
“If there’s a 30-foot saguaro that nobody wanted to come and get, it can go and it’s completely legal,” Blake said. “Your option is how much beyond that do you want to go? Do you want to take it to the Scottsdale level, where in essence you’re requiring a plant study to be done by a professional group?”
Blake said taking an inventory could cost nearly $500 per acre.
Similar ordinances require developers to hire a botanist to inventory native vegetation at a site. The developer must then move the plants, leave them in place or prove they can’t be saved.
Scottsdale said more than 250,000 native plants have been saved in the city since the ordinance passed in 2000.
Some Apache Junction council members had said they thought the destruction of saguaros was prohibited by state law and existing Apache Junction ordinances. But they aren’t.
State law allows the destruction of native plants on private property after a landowner sends a letter to Arizona’s Department of Agriculture to notify it of their intentions. Property owners also must file a notice before they transplant saguaros to a different location.
Failure to file a letter of intent is a misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Shilo Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said the state is less likely to scrutinize such actions than it once did.
“Due to budget restrictions, we don’t have the inspectors we’ve had in the past to inspect all letters of intent,” she said.
In 1996, the department had 26 staff members who could inspect plants.
But in 2001, a series of budget cuts left the department with only two employees able to perform inspections, Mitchell said.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said the state’s existing laws make it easy for developers to ignore the environmental impact of their projects.
Apache Junction Vice Mayor R.E. Eck has worked with Dietz to develop a protective ordinance in Apache Junction. He said they also will lobby the Legislature for stronger laws.